Last September, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced a recommended drainage plan for the Yazoo Backwater Area, affecting a significant portion of the Mississippi River floodplain. The $181 billion Yazoo Backwater Pumps would become the world’s largest hydraulic pumping plant, with a target area of 200,000 acres of wetlands to be drained for agricultural purposes.
Then-Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt called the plan, which would benefit a relatively small number of landowners, the "most cockamamie" project he’d ever encountered, noting that the Yazoo River Basin is a haven for migratory birds, floodplain fisheries and wetlands wildlife.
The Yazoo Backwater Area, which extends above Vicksburg, Mississippi, approximately 60 miles along the Mississippi River, historically has functioned as a natural floodwater storage area for the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers and is isolated by a complex levee system. During low stages on the Mississippi River, flood control locks are opened seasonally to drain the interior floodplain waters. The Corps" Yazoo Pumps plan would drain water impounded by levees during high stages on the Mississippi River.
These wetlands in the Yazoo Backwater Area are threatened by a massive Army Corps of Engineers drainage project.
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
The Corps" plan was immediately criticized by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), which has made significant progress working with private landowners to restore more than 33,000 acres of cropland to forested wetlands and other flood-compatible uses. Oaks, cypress and other hardwood species were replanted to help restore wetlands lost due to 1930s-era federal flood control policies.
According to Charles Baxter, Yazoo Backwater Evaluation Team Leader for the USFWS, "The Corps" recommended plan would trade off nationally significant fish and wildlife resources for further agricultural drainage."
Six environmental groups—Sierra Club, National Wildlife Federation, Mississippi Wildlife Federation, Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, Gulf Restoration Network and the National Audubon Society—also oppose the pump project.
Don McKenzie of the Wildlife Management Institute asks, "How much cropland does this country need? The Corps wants to spend almost $200 million draining wetlands to increase agricultural acreage while ignoring the fact that the U.S. Department of Agriculture is spending $1.6 billion per year to retire millions of acres of unneeded cropland." According to Earthjustice, this single Corps project would damage twice as many acres of wetlands as are destroyed by all other public and private projects across the nation during an entire year.
In its "Yazoo Backwater Area Reformulation Study," the (USFWS) recommends an alternative approach be found for the Yazoo Backwater Area that balances agricultural development with floodplain restoration.